Giving thanks, and remembering history

As the nation struggled in 1939 to emerge from the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed even the date of Thanksgiving to help Americans through a dark time.
As the nation struggled in 1939 to emerge from the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed even the date of Thanksgiving to help Americans through a dark time. Associated Press file

In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the first lasting Thanksgiving Day proclamation, he couldn’t have imagined what would become of his nation or where it might place its gratitude in 2015.

Civilization seemed outstripped at the time by dark, violent forces. The United States was not at all united; a catastrophic civil war gripped the country. The unimaginable carnage and wreckage offered neither hint nor hope that America would someday reunite and emerge as a world power.

Nonetheless, Lincoln interestingly chose that particular moment to “invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands” to reserve the last Thursday in November. In the worst of times, he wrote, Americans had still had managed to hold onto their best selves and their core values, and “thanksgiving” for that should have its own holiday.

The nation survived, though gratitude continued to be tested. In 1939 – a year of five Thursdays in November – another Thanksgiving proclamation was issued, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Those times were torn, too. Traumatized Americans were dragging themselves, bit by ragged bit, out of the Great Depression, and not all felt FDR’s policies could be trusted. Spurred by a holiday shopping season so brief that it threatened to be ruinous, the president moved Thanksgiving up a week to help struggling merchants, one of many desperate efforts, large and small, to keep people from starving.

Republican states hated Roosevelt so much that they refused to shift the date, deriding anything but the final Thursday of the month as “Democratic Franksgiving.” It took two years for the president and Congress to settle on the fourth Thursday and make it official. Blame Black Friday on FDR, if you’re so inclined.

Today, three-quarters of a century later, civilization is again challenged by dark, violent forces. Again, as in the bleak year of 1939, we are polarized.

While not officially at war, the country and world are at a tenuous, perhaps pivotal moment. Terrorist attacks have wracked Europe and Africa and rekindled fears of another 9/11.

Syrian refugees are fleeing in heartbreaking droves, bringing out the best and the worst in the world and in our nation of immigrants. Meanwhile, the fault lines of both Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s eras defy healing.

Images of American police brutality against black and brown people seem to have barely progressed from the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. And while many of us enjoy a Hallmark Moment Thanksgiving, millions of us do not. Hunger and homelessness are still rampant, underemployment plagues our economy and job security is a constant concern for those who still have a paycheck.

Unemployment is dropping, but it still isn’t where it should be. For those of you who have work, be truly thankful. Also, be mindful of those who do not.

This is our stark, 21st century November landscape. Yet, as ever, gratitude somehow finds a place at the table.

Seven years after our Great Recession, we are emerging from that financial trauma, less grievous than during the 1930s but still destabilizing. A century and a half after slavery divided the nation, a black president sits in the White House, elected twice by a solid majority of voters. Never in history have we been so interconnected. Never have we been such a crucial force on the planet.

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. And on this Thanksgiving 2015, the future may be as unknowable as ever.

But we also have our past, and for this we can be grateful, because history is always the greatest predictor. And it sends us this message, by way of holiday greetings: We are all so much stronger than we remember. Even now, in this least knowable of moments, we have the resilience to look around us, and give thanks.